Frederick J. Waugh The Knight of the Holy Grail (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Like the Catholic Church, rock ‘n’ roll is often most recognized by its artifacts, its iconography, its symbols of power, and yes, images of its saints and martyrs, too. Seeking artifacts of rock ‘n’ roll glory have long been compared to the search for the Holy Grail among rock collectors.

But, a good deal of the value in such objects is in our personal relationship to them, or what they represent to us as individuals who have sought them out, or have personal stories attached to them. In an era of aging populations, mass media, and the recession, if the legwork is done for you, the fruit of another’s journey, can it really mean as much?

Resident pop culture critic, rock fan, and soon-to-be sophomore novelist Geoff Moore opens the dusty vaults of rock collectibles, rock auctions, and rock memorabilia, after a visit to a bona fide rock auction in his native Calgary …

***

Any cranky rockist worth the epithet likely possesses a few scraps of haphazardly acquired musical memorabilia though probably not enough to qualify as a collection or even as a hobby if the time and money expended are quantified. We’re all pack rats and savers to some degree and tour posters, programs, ticket stubs, Elvis Zippos and picture sleeve 45s are part and parcel of fandom. For dedicated followers of what are now known as legacy acts (When did an album track become a ‘deep cut’!?), once the deluxe reissues and autobiographies have been consumed, why there are still collectibles to had, in limited editions, naturally.

Collectibles are a tricky business because as Tom Petty sings, “It might mean something to you but it don’t mean nuthin’ to me.” Artificial markets be damned, some folks got it bad.

Trophies aside, a large part of the lure of collecting is the thrill of the hunt. Just as the Internet has laid waste to The Great Record Store Spree, auction sites such as eBay may have effectively eliminated the mild sense of adventure associated with collecting; virtually anything seems to be a mouse click or two away if you’re willing to pay for it. The online Rolling Stones store has more departments than the Canadian government.

According to TripAdvisor, the Deerfoot Inn & Casino ranks 49th amongst the 94 Calgary hotels rated. There are worse places, although there’s few that can match the scent of desperation, like a whiff of body odour on public transit, pervading the banks of slots in the darkened casino on this Sunday afternoon. People can get lost in here.

In a meeting room off the carpeted hallway connecting the casino to the lobby, the 60-odd lots for the Classic Rock and Roll Memorabilia Dispersal have been available for viewing since 2 p.m. After 4, when the auction begins, an indiscreet cough or a reflexive nose wipe may cost thousands.

Curiosity and envy are the visit’s triggers; it’s important to know what a couple of hardcore rock fans and collectors displayed in their basement. There’s a creepy sense of invasion too in examining somebody else’s possessions while trying to ascertain their value, if any, to you. It’s a bit like walking your dog at night and peering into lit living room windows and judging the residents’ sense of decor: That’s one ugly painting. Funny place for a mirror.

Photo: Ian Burt

There’s a badly worn Goat’s Head Soup LP sleeve autographed by the Stones. Ron Wood’s signature is prominent. What would a pedant bid?

Nearby is a framed ‘Angie’ gold single, an inset picture of the band includes Ron Wood rather than Mick Taylor. There’s an electric guitar autographed by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Thirteen different, numbered prints, each one signed by the artist Ron Wood, are displayed on easels. Memorabilia from the Stones corporate era (‘Steel Wheels’ onwards) is, of course, signed by Ron Wood.

Unlike Ron Wood, Jimi Hendrix isn’t signing any more autographs. Part of the message written on the Electric Ladyland cover reads, “STAY KOOL.” There’s a signed Kozmic Blues Janis Joplin album. What was it about the letter K back in those days? Whatever the provenance of these two, probably rare, pieces, they both come with certificates of authenticity which were likely only generated by dealers decades after the LPs were signed.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the rock collectibles market exploded. Was it with the death of Elvis and the rise of Elvis Presley Enterprises? The expansion of the themed Hard Rock Cafe restaurant chain in the early 80s? The 1995 opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland? It definitely coincides with the adulthood of the majority of baby boomers.

photo: Marc Wilson-BlackburnTwo guitars are of note, because they appear to have been manufactured for display only, a Union Jack Fender signed by Pete Townshend and an acoustic guitar with the ‘Dark Side’ prism on its black body, signed by members of Pink Floyd. What would a dog walker think if they noticed one of those hanging over the mantelpiece? Kool? Tacky as hell?

The viewing was an amusing diversion, more interesting than the day’s slate of NFL games. It quickly became apparent that bidding and buying were not going to be options. These lots were somebody else’s journey; the legwork, the scrounging, the bargaining and the travelling and whatever else was involved would always be their tale to tell as an auction doesn’t really qualify as a collecting adventure or even a lucky break.

Nothing in the room had any meaning.

In a story promoting the auction, the Calgary Herald reported that the owners of the collection, a couple in their mid-fifties, were selling their home, possessions – everything – and going mobile, headed for a gypsy retirement in a motor home.

This is a reminder to all of us that even if you’re still breathing, sometimes you still can’t take it with you.

***

Geoff Moore lives in Calgary, and his new novel Duke Street Kings is about to come out! Watch this space!

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2 thoughts on “Rock Collectibles: Meaning-Making and Memorabilia

  1. Lennon’s tooth sold for $31,200 – to a dentist in Red Deer, AB which is about 90 minutes up Highway 2 from Calgary. No plans for a road trip.

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